Constable Ifzal Zaffar, a Hong Kong policeman of Pakistani descent, became an overnight star after he talked a fellow Pakistani out of committing suicide in February. The fact he used their mother tongue, Urdu, to communicate was noted in media reports, which also highlighted his Cantonese proficiency and lauded Project Gemstone.
The latter is a scheme introduced in 2013 to provide Cantonese-language training to non-ethnic-Chinese young people interested in joining the police force or entering government service.
Also highlighted was a 2014 collaboration between the police and the Centre for Harmony and Enhancement of Ethnic Minority Residents, which provides interpretation services through teleconferencing – available in Hindi, Nepali, Tagalog, Thai, Punjabi, Urdu and Bahasa Indonesia – to support people from ethnic minorities at police reporting centres.
Such initiatives signal a shift in policy: from one that sees language as a problem – with multilingualism viewed as potentially leading to conflict and lack of social cohesion, and minority languages associated with poverty and disadvantage – to one that sees language as a right that allows for full participation in society. A third orientation, of language as a resource, recognises multilingualism as increasing society’s stock of skills, enhancing the status of groups viewed as subordinate, promoting local economies and cultures, and encouraging mutual respect rather than dominance. It also recognises minority groups as sources of expertise – as with our Urdu-speaking officer.
But shouldn’t regard for diversity cut both ways, with proficiency in more than just Hong Kong’s dominant languages being acquired by many?
Take London, where almost 300 lanrguages are spoken. In 2013, the Metropolitan Police Service offered its 31,000 officers the chance to learn one of 18 languages ranging from French to Farsi, to improve communication with the city’s growing ranks of ethnic communities. The Met’s 2015 recruitment drive required candidates to be proficient in a second language – one of 14, including Arabic, Bengali, Greek, Hebrew, Polish, Sinhala, Turkish, and Yoruba – recognising the skill as an asset for more effectively engaging with people in the community. Officers of the New York Police Department speak 75 languages between them.
Occupation aside, ethnic and linguistic diversity – including the learning of minority languages by the majority community – have been shown to be valuable economic and social resources, contributing to societal well-being and nation-building.
Perhaps one day we will be lauding someone ethnically Chinese for their proficiency in a minority language.